Grace is often thought of as a power of God, a free gift he bestows on others. But a careful reading of the use of the word in the Bible suggests a further way of understanding the word.
The first thing to note about ‘grace’ is that it is seldom used of God in the Old Testament. Conversely, it is everywhere in the New Testament, used scores of times. “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2.8); “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1.16); “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (numerous references); “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2.11); “this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5.2); “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1.2; 2 Corinthians 1.2); “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1.4). The list goes on. In Romans 5 the Greek word for ‘grace’ or one of its cognates is used eight times in the chapter.
It is as if the first Christians fastened onto the word to best describe something unique revealed about God in Jesus, that until Jesus came had been largely unknown about God’s character. St John in the prologue to his gospel confirms this impression. He makes it clear that the ‘grace of God’ was unknown until Jesus came into the world:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace…The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1. 14-17)
‘Grace’ comes from a Greek word which means something welcome that evokes a response of gladness. English uses similar words – gratitude, graceful, gracious – derived from the same Greek word to express the same two ideas. To receive a ‘gracious letter’ means to receive a letter that is welcome and evokes a response of gladness. To watch a ‘graceful dance’ is to see a dance expressed so beautifully that we welcome seeing it. It makes us feel grateful and glad.
So when we speak of the ‘grace of God’, we are not talking so much about a divine power, as the way God operates in the world. He operates in such a way that God’s ways are welcome and they evoke in us gladness and gratitude and joy. Jesus brought this note about God into his life and manner in such a way that others said: “this must be what God is truly like”.
So when we speak of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”, we mean the welcome manner by which Jesus goes about his Father’s business. How he does things and says things evokes a welcome response of gladness and gratitude and joy. Think of the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus did not stop at the tree Zacchaeus had climbed and say, “Zacchaeus, you have a lot to be ashamed of. Nobody likes you. But God will forgive you if you apologise and promise to mend your ways”. That manner may have alienated Zacchaeus further. Rather, Jesus speaks and acts in such a way – such a ‘gracious’ way – that Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus’ presence and responds to what Jesus says gladly, turning over a new leaf, making reparation, and doing all with gratitude and joy.
Christians are called to enact in their relationships ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’, that is, Christ’s consideration for others, his patience, his tact, his forbearing, his manner of forgiveness, his courage. When this happens, love, goodness, hope and reconciliation are given new footholds to work from. We are invited to so act in our dealings with others that how we behave is welcome and evokes a sense of gratitude and gladness. Or to use St Matthew’s words: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16)
What is true of us ought also to be true of our parish communities. They should be communities of grace; that is, we should so act as a community towards others that they welcome our manner of relating to them and respond with gratitude and joy.
Next time you hear the word ‘grace’ remember it is not just a free gift from God, it is God’s beautiful way of acting in the world, a way we are called to imitate.
Bishop Jonathan will be teaching the subject ‘Introduction to the New Testament’ at St Francis College in the second semester of 2019, beginning Wednesday 17 July. To find out more, please email Bishop Jonathan.Jump to next article